A
“preventive war” is a war undertaken proactively against a merely potential enemy, who has neither
initiated hostilities nor shown any sign of intending imminently to do so.  The Japanese attack on the United States at
Pearl Harbor is a famous example.  This
is not to be confused with a “preemptive war,” which involves a proactive
attack on an enemy who has shown
signs of intending to initiate hostilities. 
The Arab-Israeli Six-Day War is a standard example. 

The Iraq war
of 2003-2011 was sometimes characterized as a “preventive war,” though in my
opinion that is, whatever else one thinks of that war, not an accurate
characterization.  Rather, I think it fell
under the category of “punitive war,” a war fought to punish an enemy nation
for some offense (such as a violation of treaty obligations).   Whether it was justifiable under that description is not an issue I am addressing
here.  What is relevant is that critics of
the Iraq war who characterized it as a preventive war took it to be ipso facto unjust.  For while preemptive
war is generally thought to be justifiable, preventive
war is – rightly, in my view – widely thought not to be justifiable. 

The reason
should be obvious.  Until a potential
enemy has actually done something –
such as actually attacking (which would justify a defensive war), or preparing
to attack (which could justify a preemptive war), or in some other way actually
committing a sufficiently grave offense (which might justify a punitive war) –
said potential enemy is in all relevant respects innocent.  You cannot
justifiably attack a nation merely for what it might do, any more than you can punish an individual for what he might do.

This is why
we don’t arrest and punish gangsters even when we have good reason to suspect that
they will at some point commit crimes, and don’t fine
corporations even when we have good reason to suspect that they will at some point pollute.  You can justifiably inflict harm on people
only for what they have in fact done,
not for what you think they probably will
do
in the future, and certainly not for what they merely might do.

But don’t we
rightly punish people for certain negligent acts, even when they don’t actually
result in harm?  Yes, but that is because
such punishments are relevantly analogous to preemptive war rather than to preventive war.  Suppose I use a flamethrower to clear away
brush or scare off raccoons in my backyard. 
Suppose I don’t actually end up igniting your yard or house.  I still have in fact put your property in imminent danger of harm, even if I had
no hostile motive but was just being stupid. 
And it is reasonable to forestall actions that are per se dangerous in this way by prohibiting them altogether, as
well as by punishing them after they occur.

It would not
be reasonable, though, to prohibit ownership of (say) chainsaws, merely because
someone might be so stupid as to use
them in a way that endangered others.  It
is very difficult to use a flamethrower in your backyard in a way that does not pose an imminent grave risk to your
neighbors.  But it is not difficult to
use a chainsaw in a way that poses no serious risk to others.  Sure, I could
do something really stupid with it – say, tying it to a rope, starting it
up, and then swinging it around in a wide arc that crosses over your property
line – but it is extremely unlikely that many if any chainsaw owners would do
such a thing.  Flamethrower use in a
neighborhood context is per se
dangerous to others in a way that chainsaw use is not.

Now, this is
the principle on which quarantining disease carriers is justifiable, at least
when walking around with the disease is more like using a flamethrower than it
is like using a chainsaw.  Hence, it is
reasonable to quarantine people with bubonic plague.  But it would be unreasonable to quarantine
people with the flu, even if occasionally there are people who die from the
flu.  Quarantining someone with bubonic
plague inflicts a harm on him – it takes away his freedom of movement and may
thereby prevent him from making a living or going to school, cause emotional
distress, and so on – but this is justifiable given that his walking about
freely would impose a grave and immediate threat to others, just as using a
flamethrower in your backyard would. 
Quarantining such a person would be analogous to a preemptive war – the forestalling of a grave and imminent threat
that the person actually does in fact
pose.

But it would
not be reasonable to quarantine a person simply because he might get bubonic plague and pass it to others, or because he does
in fact have an illness but one which merely might cause grave harm to another (such as the flu or a severe cold).  That would be analogous to a preventive war rather than a preemptive
war, and illegitimate for the same reason. 
You can justifiably quarantine Typhoid Mary.  But how can you justifiably quarantine Potentially Typhoid Mary, any more than
you can justifiably attack a potential
enemy?  Or how could you justifiably
quarantine Severe Cold Mary on the
grounds that some people might in theory die if they catch her cold, any more
than you could legitimately ban chainsaws on the grounds that someone somewhere might use a chainsaw
foolishly? 

Now,
COVID-19 is not remotely like bubonic plague, and while for some people it is
certainly worse than the flu, for most people it is not.  And we know who is most vulnerable – the
elderly and those with certain preexisting medical conditions.  So, how can it possibly be justifiable to
quarantine those who do not have the
virus, on the grounds that they might
get it, and then might go on to spread it to someone among the minority
of people to whom it poses a grave danger? 
Especially when there is an obvious far less draconian alternative,
namely quarantining only those who do have the virus and those who are at
special risk from it?  And especially when
there is no proof that the more draconian measures are really necessary, and
evidence that in fact they have
no
net benefit over less draconian policies?
 

In short, how
are lockdowns for vast populations of healthy people any more justifiable than
“preventive war”?  How is the argument “If we don’t quarantine the healthy, grandma
might die if they catch the virus and spread it to her
” any better than the
argument “If we don’t proactively attack
country X, grandma might die if X attacks us”?
  If those who start a “preventive war” are war
criminals, what are those who have “locked down” the healthy and thereby
destroyed livelihoods, inflicted severe mental distress, and set back the
education of millions of children – and all
for nothing
, given the evidence that such policies have at the end of the
day done
little or no more good than less destructive ones have?
 

Don’t
answer: “But killing people in a war is worse than quarantining them!”  Of course it is, but that’s irrelevant.  Destroying the livelihoods, etc. of innocent
people is not as bad as killing them,
but it hardly follows that it isn’t extremely
bad
.  And since when is a government
morally permitted to inflict whatever damage it sees fit on innocent citizens,
as long as it stops short of killing them?

Related
posts:

Lockdowns
versus social justice

The
rule of lawlessness

The
experts have no one to blame but themselves

What
“the science” is saying this week

The
lockdown is no longer morally justifiable

The
lockdown and appeals to authority

The
burden of proof is on those who impose burdens

The
lockdown’s loyal opposition

Some
thoughts on the COVID-19 crisis

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